March 29, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Science Journalism Disseminates Propaganda

The current methods of science news reporting don’t educate; they indoctrinate.

When science journalism was advanced in the 1920s, it had a choice, says Michael Schulson in the Pacific Standard. Reporters were filled with the spirit of progress that was in the air. Scientists were viewed as “pioneers moving into a new world.”

That progressive spirit has been there from the early days of science journalism. In the United States, science reporting took its shape shortly after World War I, when the newspaper magnate Edward Scripps founded Science Service, a non-profit wire service that would deliver science coverage to American newspapers.

Incidentally, the weekly magazine Science News is a legacy of Science Service. One of its early missions during the Scopes Trial was to help Clarence Darrow make creationists out to be anti-science, and to interview scientists who could explain and defend evolution (12/28/05). Schulson continues:

From the start, Science Service struggled to define itself: Was it in the business of public relations (PR) or journalism? “Scripps pondered whether [Science Service] should act as a press agent for the scientific associations or as an independent news service,” writes the historian Dorothy Nelkin. “While hoping to avoid simply disseminating propaganda, he chose the former role.” In its first iteration, the organization was called the American Society for the Dissemination of Science.

Schulson argues strongly that science media today needs accountability. Bouncing off the LaCour scandal (12/12/14, 6/06/15) and the reproducibility crisis in psychology (9/05/15, 2/08/16), he points out areas of cheating, sloppiness, and conflict of interest that call into question the presumptive authority of science. He calls for “better investigative reporting” as a solution.

Science reporters don’t usually look at research funding, nor do they critically evaluate the quality of the studies that they cover. Often, they lack the time or technical knowledge to dig into stories. In other cases, they may just be worried about challenging expert authority.

All communities require watchdogs though. And while they are rare, promising models of investigative science journalism do exist.

He’s thinking of Retraction Watch and a handful of reporters who do what is common in other kinds of journalism: questioning authority, digging for the facts. Is science so weak that it can’t take some beating up? Must reporters tiptoe in the presence of the experts?

Does an institution’s strength come from a sense of omniscience? Or does it come from acknowledging its faults, and showing that it can address them, even as it produces useful results?

If science cannot withstand some scrutiny, then its statements are not worth trusting. “Here’s the uncomfortable side of this story:” Schulson warns. “A substantial portion—maybe the majority—of published scientific assertions are false.

Defending the Status Quo

In “The Science Media Racket” (1/11/16), we criticized the way science reporters all come out together on the day science papers are published, like rubber ducks that all quack alike, each with the same story and artwork. On February 12 on The Conversation, Vivian Siegel defended the embargo system that enables science reporters and journal publishers to blitz the public like a corporate ad campaign.

Scientific publishing serves both the scientist and the public. It’s a quid pro quo: the authors get to claim priority for the result – meaning they got there before any other scientists did – and in return the public (including competing scientists) gets access to the experimental design, the data and the reasoning that led to the result. Priority in the form of scientific publishing earns scientists their academic rewards, including more funding for their research, jobs, promotions and prizes; in return, they reveal their work at a level of detail that other scientists can build on and ideally replicate and confirm.

And so, in 1977, the embargo system was instituted to keep papers secret until the big day of announcement. Reporters promise not to leak the paper until the agreed-on date.

Multiple journalists get an equal chance to publish a well-researched and balanced article. In exchange for respecting the journal’s press embargo, reporters find out what’s being published in advance of publication. This gives multiple journalists a chance to read the scientific article, find experts who can help them make sense of the article, and publish a carefully crafted story. From the scientist’s (and scientific journal’s) perspective, this maximizes the quality and quantity of the coverage by the press.

She gives other excuses. The public gets access to the paper close to the time of the press coverage instead of later (but most people lack access behind paywalls). Other scientists can vet the claims (but how many of them get a reporter’s ear?). It protects the authors’ priority (which is fine). It allows time for pre-publication peer review (nice in theory).

I know of no case in which talking about a discovery in advance of scientific publication helps the public. Yes, “breaking news” is exciting. But journalists and other writers can tell riveting stories about science that convey the excitement of discovery without breaking journal embargoes. And the scientific community can continue to work on speeding its communication with the public while preserving the quid pro quo of scientific publication.

Objections Sustained

Siegel’s rationalizations for the status quo miss the point. Our critique was not about priority. It was not about jumping the gun. It was not about breaking agreements. The issue in our critique was about propaganda. All the reporters say the same things, with just minor nuances, acting as if they are loyal employees of Big Science Inc. There’s no investigative journalism, no hard questions, no doubting of the consensus. Where are the watchdogs Schulson wrote about? Instead of seeing themselves as real journalists, science reporters (with a few exceptions) act as P.R. agents for the scientific authorities. Like toadies for Pravda, they swallow the self-serving press releases of the authors’ universities or labs and regurgitate it to the public, seasoned with their particular juices. It doesn’t help things when the reporters’ social communities are predominantly leftist in political ideology. Most write as if they have never talked to a real conservative in their life, but only hear about them filtered through the editorial pages of the New York Times. Medical Xpress wrote about how conservatives and liberals do think differently. An enterprise that restricts itself to one view risks stifling thought, becoming intellectually hermaphroditic.

The old 1977 system is way past its expiration date. So is the old “Science Service” of Edward Scripps. Those were before the internet. Now, bloggers are everywhere. The science Pravda machine, to compete in the new marketplace of ideas with its instantaneous global reach, must change. And it is changing. The exposès over reproducibility (Medical Xpress) and misuse of statistics (Nature, PhysOrg), the Lacour and Bicep2 scandals (2/02/15) have unveiled the fallibility of scientific “experts.” Blushing a little over their complicity, the big journals are moving toward transparency, pre-publication peer review, and open access (6/02/14, 6/13/06).

What’s still missing, though, is true journalism. “How do you know that?” should be the first question in a reporter’s arsenal when interviewing a scientist. Imagine if a reporter had the audacity to question the political ties of the consensus, or their conflicts of interest. Imagine if the AAAS maintained a 50/50 mix of Democrats and Republicans. Imagine if the philosophical materialism of a scientist became an issue in his latest claim about evolution. What if, instead of printing another evolutionary speculation about the origins of altruism, PNAS printed a historical account of the rise of materialism in scientific communities?

Reporters and the public need to respect the learning of scientists who have spent many years studying genes, neutrinos or fossils. They should respect their math skills or ability to operate cutting-edge technology. But scientists should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other scholars in any other field, including politicians who have law degrees or historians who have history degrees. The more controversial the claim, the more scrutiny is needed. The more a claim impinges on public policy, the more debate is needed. If a finding is solid, it can take the heat.

We call on university science departments, labs and science news organizations to hire more conservatives. In a day of deep political divides, you are doing yourself no favor by aligning with the left. To many Americans, you look like an arm of the Democratic party (or even the communist party). If you want credibility with the public, you need to at least give an appearance of objectivity. You can’t do that when you pretend to use “science” to support abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and other darling projects of Democrats (2/28/14) that half the public despises. Get out there and talk to conservatives. Interview the Darwin critics, the ones with PhDs in science. Expand your horizons. Tear down this wall. Let the free flow of ideas get past your chokepoints. Science is not supposed to be about political ideology, social reinforcement or tradition. It’s supposed to be about logic and evidence. Let those be your guiding lights.


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